Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Helping Without Hurting

I've been sitting on this blog post for quite some time now. I wrote it back in October but have been hesitant to post it for who knows what reason... Transparency (and not caring how politically correct I am) is something I'm going to try to do in this blog. Comments & discussion are welcomed =)


In the last week, I’ve been devouring the book Helping Without Hurting by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. It’s a great and challenging book, I highly recommend it. I read it the first time about a year ago and decided to pick it up again before I move to Peru. The take-home message is how to approach development from a Christian perspective and how oftentimes, out of the best intentions and an effort to help, we end up hurting the poor (and ourselves).

Trying to contextualize that to my life here in Santa Barbara, I struggle with how to have compassion on homeless people without “hurting” them in the process. I am a believer in not giving money because that only seems to perpetuate the problem. Today, I was sitting outside one of my favorite coffee shops reading When Helping Hurts and The Tangible Kingdom (by Halter & Smay) when a wayfaring man came up and in a loud stammer he asked the table next to me “Can you please give me 25 cents? You won’t believe the trip I’ve been on today!” Though I couldn’t see him, I think the person gave him some money because he left their table and came over to me. He repeated his rant, to which I responded, “Sorry sir, I don’t carry cash” (lie) “...but would you like a coffee or pastry from inside?” He responded, “Yes of course!”. When I went inside to order, the barista asked me if the man was harassing me, to which I responded no. When I brought him the pastry and coffee, he thanked me and I asked his name. “Dan, it’s nice to meet you, my name is Marina.” “You’re a very special person,” Dan said. At this point our handshake was becoming uncomfortably long. “Thanks, you’re really special, too” I quickly retorted, wanting our awkwardly long handshake to end. Then I dismissed myself to go work inside the coffee shop. From the window, I could clearly see Dan tripping all over himself, bothering other patrons, and standing listless in the middle of the street. He was obviously not in his right mind. One of the baristas in the coffee shop went outside numerous times to ask him to leave, and he finally did. 

So there I was, left sitting safely inside, thinking about what just transpired. I am admittedly horrible at interacting with homeless people. Most days (I am embarrassed to say) I walk briskly past while at best offering a sheepish grin or hello. I want to affirm their humanity by at least making eye contact with them, but that often leads them to ask for money (which I already shared my philosophy on). I am a firm believer in relationships as key to transformation, but have I ever really invested in a relationship with someone outside my comfort zone? Hardly. I need major growth in this area. So back to Dan, I provided him with a little food and a decent human interaction, but not much else. In the long run was this helping or hurting? 

In the book, Fikkert & Corbett warn against the American “God-complex.” Why do we as Christians seek to help poor people? Is it because of a genuine love for them as people Jesus cared about? Maybe, but we also usually experience undercurrents of pride in doing something significant with our lives. Gulp. Guilty as charged. In examining my own life, how much of my passion for economic development work comes out of a passion for the poor? Some, but I am also an extremely selfish being with a weakness for adventure and longing for significance. It is something most people (in my generation especially) struggle with. As christians we feel entitled to do awesome things for “the Kingdom” with our lives. And that’s a noble pursuit, but the driving force needs to be a love for Jesus and his heart for the world. I am reminded of a verse, Psalm 127:1 “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” We can build even good things like ministry to our own glory. Real transformation, however, happens when our glory is not at the center. That route is usually less appealing, but so much more worthwhile.

In case you have a desire to check out either of the books mentioned in this blog, here they are on Amazon: 
When Helping Hurts
The Tangible Kingdom

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